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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Raising achievement in Atlanta — without cheating

Bianca McNeal taught fourth grade in 2016-17, her first year of teaching. Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux/New York Times.

New York Times reporter Sara Mosle looks at an Atlanta principal who’s trying to raise reading and math performance at her high-poverty, nearly all-black elementary school by helping teachers improve their teaching.

Atlanta’s cheating scandal is history now. Pressure to raise test scores is as strong as ever, especially at Peyton Forest Elementary, which had earned an F on its state report card.

Principal Cynthia Gunner or a reading or math specialist visits each teacher’s classroom nearly every day, writes Mosle.

Gunner tended to see her teachers there as belonging to one of three categories. First were the already excellent teachers like Ericka Fluellen. Second were several teachers like Bianca McNeal, the novice, who might not be strong instructors yet but were willing to put in the effort to improve. Third were the teachers “who can but won’t,” in Gunner’s phrase; these teachers had the capacity to become more effective educators but appeared to have no interest in doing so. They were already set in their pedagogical ways or didn’t think change at the school was necessary or possible or didn’t want to put in more effort, or there was some other reason Gunner couldn’t yet divine.

Some teachers complained about frequent classroom visits, which they saw as harassment. Some quit in mid-year, forcing the principal to find long-term substitutes.

At the end of Gunner’s first year, reading the percentage of “proficient” readers rose from 12 percent the previous year to 15 percent; math proficiency rose from 11 percent to 21 percent. The school moved up to a “D.”

By November of 2017-18, her second year, four teachers had quit. However, “by this spring, there was a palpable difference in the school,” writes Mosle.

Reading classes included more actual reading, and from class to class, students were toting library books. Fluellen was now an instructional coach and had started a “new-teacher academy” to help develop and retain the school’s recent hires. Teachers were meeting weekly after school in grade and subject teams, discussing instructional problems they had in class and helping one another to resolve them. McNeal, no longer tentative, showed a group of her colleagues a new way to teach adding fractions.

Reading scores climbed to 21 percent “proficient” and math proficiency inched up to 22 percent.

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